The United Nations Continuing ‘Search’ for Tibet’s Panchen Lama

By Ngawang Choephel Drakmargyapon*

“If I die, I think two to three years, I think the Chinese may choose even one Dalai Lama. But Tibetans (will) not accept that. The Panchen Lama which they choose, some Chinese officials also they describe as ‘Fake Panchen Lama’.”

                                              ~ His Holiness the Dalai Lama, TIME Magazine, 7 March 2019

This report is an account of the largely unknown attempts made to ascertain the whereabouts, the well-being and the fate of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the Eleventh Panchen Lama of Tibet at the United Nations.[1] It attempts to provide a comprehensive narrative on the efforts by the international community over the past more than two decades to determine the fate of the Panchen Lama by particularly highlighting how the mechanisms of the UN human rights system have played a crucial role to help the Tibetans, followers of Tibetan Buddhism, supporters of Tibet and others by initiating interventions on the case directly with the Chinese authorities.

Gedhun Choekyi Nyima was recognised on 14 May 1995 by His Holiness the Dalai Lama during a ceremony in Dharamsala, India. His Holiness declared: “Today is the auspicious day when the Buddha first gave the Kalachakra teaching. The Kalachakra teachings have a special connection with the Panchen Lamas. On this occasion, which also happens to be the Vaisaki, it is with great joy that I am able to proclaim the reincarnation of Panchen Rinpoche. I have recognized Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, born on April 25, 1989, whose father is Kunchok Phuntsog, and mother Dechen Chodon, of Lhari district in Nagchu, Tibet, as the true reincarnation of Panchen Lama.”

Days later (generally regarded as 17 May), China abducted Gedhun Choekyi Nyima and his family members and continue to subject them to incommunicado detention and enforced disappearance totally disregarding its obligations to international human rights norms and standards and its own laws and regulations.

Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the Eleventh Panchen Lama of Tibet, simply disappeared never to be seen to this day by the outside world.[2]

“China must be persuaded to release the child without harm expeditiously for its own sake, for its credibility. When a Permanent Member of the Security Council engage in these kind of extortion, kidnapping, coercion of the enormously important symbol of an entire people, for an entire belief, not only Tibetans but other Buddhists all over the world, I think it’s very serious,” Mr. Jose-Ramos Horta, Nobel Peace Laureate, East Timor had said.[3]

‘The Search’

The UN human rights mechanisms did not embark on the case of the Panchen Lama due to the mandates authorized by the Member-States, including the 47-member UN Human Rights Council (‘Council’).  Instead, it is due to the individual or collective responsibilities held by the UN human rights experts that the mandates responded favourably when approached on the Panchen Lama situation. One of the mandates given to the Special Rapporteurs is “to identify existing and emerging obstacles to the enjoyment of the right to freedom of religion or belief and present recommendations on ways and means to overcome such obstacles…”[4]

These mandates known as the Special Procedures of the Council (which replaced the UN Commission on Human Rights in 2006) are independent human rights experts with mandates to report and advise on human rights from a thematic or country-specific perspective. The system of Special Procedures is a central element of the UN human rights machinery and covers all human rights: civil, cultural, economic, political and social.[5]

The Special Procedures is also the name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address human rights issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

The UN Commission on Human Rights (‘Commission’)[6] and the UN Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights (‘Sub-Commission’)[7] were forums where Tibetans with the support of ECOSOC NGOs[8] were able to regularly raise the case of the Panchen Lama in order to secure clear answers from China. For instance, at the March 2007 session of the Council, 15 NGOs in a joint-statement expressed their “concern over the disappearance of the Panchen Lama describing the abuse as a crime being committed by the People’s Republic of China.”

The crime of enforced disappearance, as defined in the Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, is a continuous crime until the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person becomes known. Accordingly, the enforced disappearance since 1995 of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima is a continuous crime.[9]

On 30 August 2007, in a statement on the occasion of the International Day of the Disappeared, the Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearance (WGEID) acknowledged the “importance that the UN grants to the issue of enforced disappearances, by declaring a day to commemorate this terrible practice. At the same time, in view of the continuous nature of this offence, victims of enforced disappearances whose fate or whereabouts remain unknown should not only be commemorated once a year. Rather, every day is a day of the disappeared.”

Over the years, a number of governments have also taken up the case of the Panchen Lama with the Chinese authorities.  According to official records, Canada had called on China “to allow the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief to visit Gedhun Choekyi Nyima.”[10]  On 18 September 2017, Canada’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Ms. Chrystia Freeland provided the above written response when questioned on the Panchen Lama by Ms. Randall Garrison, Vice-Chair of Canada’s Parliamentary Friends of Tibet.

Notably in the summer of 1995, United Nations Sub-Commission on Promotion and Protection of Human Rights (aka Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities) became the international platform to which China formally released a statement to defend itself on the fate of the Panchen Lama.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights played its role in the attempts to uncover the case of the Panchen Lama’s disappearance, especially when Mrs. Mary Robinson, the former president of the Republic of Ireland, was the UN human rights chief.

Another UN avenue where the case had received much attention and more importantly reaction from China over the years was at the UN Treaty Bodies system –mechanisms like the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the Committee Against Torture (CAT). The human rights treaty bodies have committees of independent experts that monitor the implementation of the core International human rights treaties.[11] Each State Party to a treaty has an obligation to take steps to ensure that everyone in the State can enjoy the rights set out in the treaty.[12]

China is a State party to most of the core international human rights instruments.  However, China has so far failed to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) after signing the treaty in 1998.

However, the Tibetans’ lingering skepticism over the effectiveness of the UN, similar to the one held by most of the oppressed peoples, including indigenous peoples in this world, has become more pronounced as the body repeatedly failed to resolve major conflicts with lasting political solutions. Nevertheless, the Tibetans cannot ignore the fact that the UN General Assembly addressed the ‘Question of Tibet’ and adopted three resolutions between 1959 and 1965, including the affirmation that the Tibetan people have the right to self-determination.[13]

Nor can they ignore the merits of the landmark UN Sub-Commission on Human Rights resolution, ‘Situation in Tibet’ on 23 August 1991, a decision that not only produced the first UN Secretary-General Report on the human rights situation in Tibet after 1965 but also placed Tibet on the agenda of the 1992 session of the UN Commission on Human Rights.

Regarding the Special Procedures, since 1992, the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) has taken up cases of Tibetan detainees concluding that they had been detained arbitrarily in violations of international human rights standards.  One recent example is that of Mr. Tashi Wangchuk whose detention the WGAD determined arbitrary in its Opinion 69/2017 of 20 November 2017.[14]

In 2003, the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women in a report to the Commission concluded: “Women in Tibet continue to undergo hardship and also subjected to gender-specific crimes, including reproductive rights violations such as forced sterilization, forced abortion, coercive birth control policies and the monitoring of menstrual cycles.”[15]

The Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights of indigenous peoples communicated to China on 3 October 2007 on the allegation that “tens of thousands of Tibetans are being negatively affected by nomad settlement and resettlement, land confiscation and fencing policies.”  The expert wrote that “these policies have had a very adverse impact on the traditional lifestyles and living patterns in Tibetan areas, affecting directly the fabric of traditional Tibetan life and devastating the economy of these communities.  The implementation of these policies contributes to the challenges that Tibetan culture and religious identity face today.”[16]

The Special Rapporteur on the right to food following a fact-finding mission to China in 2010 recommended the suspension “of the non-voluntary resettlement of nomadic herders from their traditional lands and the non-voluntary relocation or rehousing programmes of other rural residents, in order to allow for meaningful consultations to take place with the affected communities, permitting to examine all available options, including recent strategies of sustainable management of marginal pastures.”[17]

Recently, in a letter dated 28 August 2018, six Special Procedures mandates asked for explanation why Chinese police resorted to the excessive use of force to disperse a peaceful protest by approximately 100 Tibetan environmental human rights defenders, demonstrating against alleged environmentally-harmful mining activities in Kham Yushul, Yushul Tibetan Autonomous prefecture in Qinghai Province. “Police allegedly assaulted protesters and used tear gas to disperse the crowd. Several protesters were reportedly left unconscious, with at least one protester hospitalised as a result of injuries sustained from the beatings and tear gas…Approximately 60 local residents reported the excessive use of force by the police to the provincial authorities and appealed to them to intervene. However, the authorities allegedly did not respond.” According the experts, the protest was organised in opposition to mining activities in the Tibetan plateau which allegedly lack the free, informed and prior consent of the local population and are harming the environment by polluting major rivers.[18]

These are a few examples on how UN human rights mechanisms have taken up specific human rights issues or individual cases facing the Tibetan people with the Chinese authorities who on most occasions responded to the communications while denying all the allegations.

But Tibetans will always remain frustrated that the UN Commission on Human Rights was never able to adopt a resolution on China despite the many attempts between 1992 and 2004 by the European Union, Denmark and the United States of America.

With the exception of 1995, China has always managed to stop substantive action on a draft resolution by using the procedural tool in the UN system called the ‘no-action motion’. In 2004, China responded that it was “not introducing a no-action motion because it refused to discuss human rights situation. On the contrary, it welcomed well-meaning criticism and suggestions from other countries. But the Anti-Chinese draft resolution introduced by the United States was designed to serve electoral interests in the future presidential elections and did not reflect a genuine concern for human rights. Anxious to maintain the dignity, objectivity and impartiality of Commission, his delegation urged its members to vote in favor of the no-action motion.”  The vote on no-action motion proposal was 28 in China’s favour, with 16 against and 9 abstentions.[19]

In November 1995, the Panchen Lama’s case was submitted to the Working Group on Communications under the 1503 Procedure (aka Confidential Procedure) of the Sub-Commission on Human Rights. After more than five hours of deliberation, the case was not considered for further action, particularly when faced with strong objections from Mr. Fan Guoxiang, the expert from China, one of the five members of the Group. Today, the Working Group functions under the Advisory Committee.[20]

There were numerous campaigns or actions initiated on the Panchen Lama’s case, including the hunger strikes launched by the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC) to seek intervention from the UN. On 3 May 2004, following assurances from the UN, the hunger strike was called off in front of the UN headquarters in New York. Assistant Secretary-General Carolyn McAskie said that the UN Secretary-General Mr. Kofi Annan had instructed her to visit the hunger strikers to convey the message that the United Nations had heard the message conveyed by the hunger strikers and that they had succeeded in bringing their appeal to the UN. As a result, McAskie said the concerns were being given the highest level of attention by UN and a broad range of UN human rights mechanism were taking up the cases that the hunger strikers had sought to highlight.[21]

In its worldwide action issued on 18 January 1996, the Amnesty International said that it was “seriously concerned that a six-year old Tibetan boy and his family have been missing from their home for eight months and may be under restriction by the authorities. It is also concerned that Chadrel Rinpoche, abbot of Tashilhunpo monastery and over 50 other monks and laypeople, remain in detention in connection with the disputed choice of the reincarnation of the 10th Panchen Lama, Tibet’s second most senior lama.”[22]

Committee on the Rights of the Child

One of the first United Nations avenues where Panchen Lama’s case received adequate attention for dialogue was when China’s first Periodic Report came up for scrutiny by the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in May 1996 at the UN in Geneva, Switzerland. There was global attention towards this CRC meeting because it would be the first opportunity for the world to scrutinise and hear directly from the Chinese delegation and, that too in a public format, about the whereabouts, the well-being and the fate of the Panchen Lama.

On 28 May 1996, Ambassador Wu Jianmin who headed the Chinese delegation told the CRC: “With regard to reports concerning the controversy surrounding recognition of the Panchen Lama…the Tenth Panchen Lama had passed away on 28 January 1989.  Three days later, the State Council had made a decision concerning the funeral and reincarnation of the Tenth Panchen Lama…his Government respected the religious beliefs and sentiments of the broad masses of believers in Tibet.”[23]

During this opening interaction with the Chinese delegation, Mr. Thomas Hammarberg, the CRC expert from Sweden, asked “if the Chinese Government would accept a fact-finding visit from the outsiders with a view to making constructive suggestions on the problem in Tibet.”

Another expert, Ms. Santos Pais from Portugal, echoed « the concerns expressed by Mr. Hammarberg on the fate of the Panchen Lama…emphasized that the Convention was directed at the rights of the individual child, and thus applied also to that particular six-year old child, whose best interests, fundamental rights and freedom from discrimination on the basis of religious belief it was intended to protect.”[24]Pais continued: “How could it be verified that the child recognized by the Tibetans as the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama was being held in isolation in his own interest and in accordance with the parents’ wishes, as the Chinese authorities stated? Moreover, how was it possible to speak of the best interests of the child when the child’s opinion had not even been sought? Would it be possible to authorize a visit by United Nations representatives to verify that the child was in good health? As for the child designated by the Chinese authorities. What proof existed that he was being protected? Beyond its religious and political aspects, in her view the situation was one of two children being held hostage.”[25]

Towards the end of this dialogue with the Chinese delegation, Mr. Hammarberg said the Committee was “concerned at the fate of the child chosen by the Dalai Lama to become the new Panchen Lama, and of all Tibetan children in general,” adding that “he and Mrs. Santos Pais had volunteered to propose the establishment of a mechanism for diminishing the conflict in Tibet.”

On 7 June 1996, the CRC’s ‘Concluding Observations’ on China’s Report said: “In the framework of the exercise of the right to freedom of religion by children belonging to minorities…the Committee expresses its deep concern in connection with violations of human rights of the Tibetan religious minority. State intervention in religious principles and procedures seems to be most unfortunate for the whole generation of boys and girls among the Tibetan population.[26]

While asking China to “seek constructive response to the concern expressed” in the above recommendation, the Committee suggested “that a review be undertaken of measures to ensure that children in the Tibet Autonomous Region and other minority areas are guaranteed full opportunities to develop knowledge about their own language and culture as well as to learn Chinese language. Steps should be taken to protect these children from discrimination and to ensure their access to higher education on an equal footing.”[27]

From then on, the Chinese authorities could not hide from the fact that Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the Eleventh Panchen Lama of Tibet, was in their custody.  This was clear from the message of the CRC’s Concluding Observations.

At China’s second periodic review by the CRC in September 2005, senior representatives including Kelkhang Rinpoche from the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery, the exile seat of the Panchen Lama in south India, joined the Tibetan delegation. The delegation presented the CRC with 3,777 signed letters of concern on Panchen Lama selected from hundreds of thousands of cards and letters Tibetan NGOs had received from the international community in the past years. The figure marked the number of days in custody when the CRC received the Chinese delegation on 20 September 2005.[28]

As the Chinese delegation appeared before the CRC on 20 September 2005,[29] Mr. Liwski, the expert from Argentina, asked about measures taken by China in response to Committee Against Torture’s expressed concern “about the ill-treatment of Tibetan children in detention, and … wished to know whether Tibetan children had been victims of such treatment.”[30] China’s Ambassador to the UN Sha Zukang responded: “The Dalai Lama’s appointment of the Panchen Lama had been a violation of well-established laws. The boy in question was an ordinary Tibetan child who was living a normal, healthy life in China”.[31]

Mr. Doek, the expert from the Netherlands, the then chairperson of the CRC, remarked that the Panchen Lama had reportedly been taken to China from Tibet against his will and against the will of his parents. China had repeatedly refused the International community’s requests to make an independent visit to China to verify the child’s living conditions. He urged the Chinese delegation to transmit the Committee’s concerns in that regard to the Chinese Government. In reaction, Ambassador Sha said that “requests for an independent visit to the Panchan Lama had been refused at the instruction of the child and his family, who did not wish to have their privacy invaded. He would transmit the Committee’s concerns to his Government.”[32]

The call from Prof. Doek occurred when the Chinese delegation was responding to a question raised the previous day by Ms. Lucy Smith, the CRC Expert from Norway, about religious freedom in Tibet and religious education in schools. Ms. Smith had requested “more information” about Panchen Lama’s current status, adding that at the age of 16 years, he was still a child.

The Chinese delegate repeated the usual response that Gedhun Choekyi Nyima was just an ordinary boy who was attending secondary school and scoring good grades. The Chinese delegate said that the Dalai Lama’s choice of Panchen Lama violated historic procedures and was “illegal, null and void”. The delegate added that “Gedhun Choekyi Nyima was nothing but a normal child who was receiving a good education.”

Prof. Doek highlighted the regular denial of requests for access to the Panchen Lama, saying, “lawyers assume that there is an appearance of something being wrong” when they are unable to verify the facts. Requesting a “candid, open and frank answer”, he asked the Chinese delegation to consider the seriousness of the request that an independent body be allowed to visit Gedhun Choekyi Nyima. “I still fail to understand why it is so difficult” for China to allow access to the boy by an independent body, Prof. Doek said. Describing the case as a “returning issue” to the CRC, Prof. Doek suggested that allowing an independent body to visit the Panchen Lama “would clear the air” on the case.

In its Concluding Observations, the CRC stated that “it notes the information provided about Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, but remained concerned that it has not yet been possible to have this information confirmed by an independent expert. The Committee asked the Chinese authorities to allow an independent expert to visit and confirm the well-being of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima while respecting his right to privacy, and that of his parents.”[33]

During China’s third periodic review by CRC in September 2013, Mr. Zhao Chi from the Chinese delegation said that in ethnic Tibetan areas, the tradition of recognizing the reincarnation of the Buddha was respected, and minors who were determined to be the reincarnation of the living Buddha were permitted to enter temples to learn the scriptures. Other children could choose to enter a religious institute or adopt a monastic life once they had completed their nine years of compulsory education. In this exchange, on 27 September 2013, Ms. Sandberg, the then chairperson of the CRC, asked about the whereabouts of the Panchen Lama, specifically if “the information on his whereabouts had been confirmed by an independent expert, as recommended by the Committee in its previous concluding observations.”[34] Mr. Zhao informed that “Gedhun Choekyi Nyima lived like any other ordinary Chinese citizen. He had received compulsory and higher education in China and was leading a healthy, normal life. He and his family had expressed the wish not to be disturbed by outsiders, as they feared they might seek to use him for political motives.”

In its Concluding Observations adopted on 29 October 2013, the CRC remained “deeply concerned that despite the constitutional guarantees of freedom of religious belief for ethnic and religious minorities, the State party continues to introduce regulations and policies that impose severe restrictions on cultural and religious freedoms of various groups of children, including Tibetans and Uighur children and children of Falun Gong practitioners.”[35] The Committee said that it was “deeply disturbed” by “the situation of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, who disappeared at the age of 6 years in 1995, and the fact that, while the State party has provided some information, it has yet to allowed any independent expert to visit and confirm his whereabouts, the fulfillment of his rights and his well-being”.[36]The CRC recommended that China “immediately allow an independent expert to visit Gedhun Choekyi Nyima and verify his health and living conditions.”[37] China was asked to submit a combined fifth and sixth periodic report by 31 March 2019.  This has not happened as such no schedule has been announced by the CRC to review China again.

Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances

In 1996, the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID) informed the HRC about the case of four monks who were reportedly disappeared in 1996 allegedly accused of having produced pro-independence posters and leaflets containing prayers for the health and safety of the child reported as disappeared, recognized by the Dalai Lama on 14 May 1995 as the reincarnation of the late Panchen Lama.”[38] The WGEID said China had provided information on three cases which concern the disappearance of the boy, Gedhun Nyima, who was reportedly recognized as the reincarnation of the tenth Panchen Lama by the Dalai Lama in 1995, and his parents.”[39]

In its assessment, the WGEID provided the Tibetan people with an initial declaration stating: “The Working Group remains concerned about the whereabouts of the child, Gedhun Nyima, who is the subject of the controversial issue regarding the reincarnation of the late Panchen Lama. In this connection, in accordance with its method of work, the working group would appreciate being provided by the Government of China with documents supporting its statement that he and his parents had appealed to the Government for protection and at present are leading normal lives and enjoying perfect health.”[40]

In its report to the Commission in 1998, the WGEID stated: “In the case of the mother of the boy Gedhun Nyima, who was reportedly recognized as the reincarnation of the tenth Panchen Lama by the Dalai Lama in 1995, the Government replied that she was also known under another name and was currently serving a prison sentence.[41] Surprisingly, further exchanges are recorded on this matter.

The WGEID also considers the individual cases of Panchen Lama’s parents as that of an unresolved enforced disappearance cases.

In 2001, the WGEID reminded the Commission about the earlier disappearance of four Tibetan monks in 1996 for reportedly praying for the health and safety of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima.[42]

In 2005, the WGEID while acknowledging 31 outstanding cases to be resolved with China took note of “a worrying circumstance in which individuals from vulnerable groups, including children and mentally challenged people, have allegedly disappeared.”[43]

Then on 2 May 2006, the WGEID issued a statement about how the case of the Panchen Lama was discussed at its meeting, stating that it “coincided with the 17th birthday of the Panchen Lama who disappeared when he was only 6 years old.”[44]

Continuing its interventions, the WGEID informed the new Human Rights Council in 2006 that it had received information “expressing concern about the well-being of the Panchen Lama of Tibet, who has been missing for 12 years.”[45]

On 19 September 2006, nine NGOs raised the case of the missing Panchen Lama during an interactive dialogue on the WGEID’s 2005 report at the HRC. Delivering a joint statement, the Movement Against Racism for Friendship Among All Peoples (MRAP) said: “We remain deeply concerned about the disappearance of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima and his parents, and request the Working Group to update the Human Rights Council about its current efforts on this outstanding case. Furthermore, we would to know what is the opinion of the Working Group about the recommendation made last year by the Committee on the Rights of the Child that China. Allow an independent expert to visit and confirm the well-being of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima while respecting his right to privacy, and that of his parents.”[46]

At the nineteenth session of the Human Rights Council in 2012, the WGEID also released the English translation of China’s responses dated 4 September 2009.  In this communication, the Chinese authorities stated: “Concerning Choekyi Nima…Since the reign of the Qianlong emperor during the Qing Dynasty in the eighteenth century, the entire process relating to the search for and determination of the Dalai Lama and the child reincarnation of the Panchen Lama as well as the sitting-in-bed ceremony of the latter has required the transmission of a detailed report by the local Tibetan government to the central Government, with authority for the final determination regarding the child reincarnation concentrated in the central Government. The drawing of lots from a golden urn has likewise become a historically established practice since that time. The Dalai Lama’s disregard for a historically established practice, his flouting of a religious ritual and his arrogating to himself the recognition of the so-called reincarnated Panchen Lama are illegal and devoid of any effect. They also show extreme disrespect for the Dalai Lama’s historic lineage. Choekyi Nyima, who, according to the foreign media is just an average Chinese boy belonging to the Tibetan minority, is in excellent health. China is a country governed by the rule of law, and citizens’ legitimate rights are protected by national legislation; Choekyi Nyima has not been placed under « house arrest. » He and his family are currently leading normal lives in Tibet, and he is receiving excellent education. They have on numerous occasions said they do not wish to have their normal lives disrupted in any way, and we should fully respect their wishes. The Chinese Government respectfully requests that the foregoing be reproduced in its entirety in a relevant document of the United Nations.”[47]

The WGEID also reported its press release issued on 6 April 2011 that showed “serious concern at the wave of enforced disappearances that allegedly took place in China over the previous few months.” The expert body stated that “it continues to monitor cases which occurred in the past, including Messrs. Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, known as the 11th Panchen Lama, Gao Zhisheng, and Feng Jiang, and called on the Chinese authorities to release all those who have disappeared and to provide full information on the fate and whereabouts of the persons who have allegedly disappeared.”[48]

Two days later, the WGEID in a rare public statement expressed concern about the Panchen Lama, “a case going back 16 years…He disappeared in 1995 when he was six years old. While the Chinese authorities have admitted taking him, they have continually refused to divulge any information about him or his whereabouts, making his case an enforced disappearance. A number of human rights mechanisms including the UN Committee against Torture, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, as well as Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief,  have all called for his whereabouts to be revealed, to no avail”.[49]

In its annual report, the WGEID confirmed its meeting with the representatives of the Chinese Government and expressed its grave concerns “about various reports of the high number of alleged disappearances which took place in China during the reporting period, as reflected in the seven urgent appeals and two urgent actions transmitted to the Government.”

While providing no updates on the situation of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the WGEID informed the Council about its 19 February 2013 letter to the Chinese authorities requesting an invitation to visit the country.  “No response has been received yet from the Government, in spite of reminders sent on 2 September 2013, 28 October 2014, 27 November 2015 and 18 November 2016.”[50]

Spanning almost 24 years, this dialogue between WGEID and the Chinese authorities began in 1995 when the Commission on Human Rights was informed: “The newly reported case of disappearance is said to have occurred in Tibet, and concern a six-year-old boy who was allegedly recognized as the reincarnation of the tenth Panchen Lama by the Dalai Lama on 14 May 1995, and the boy’s parents, who are alleged to have been taken from their village by members of the police.”[51]

The WGEID was informed by the Chinese Government in a lengthy reply that “there has never been any of …kidnapping and disappearance of the family of the reincarnated child and that the disappearance is a mere fabrication by the Dalai Lama group for political purposes. The process for selecting a reincarnated child was described. Since 1989, when the Panchen Lama passed away, the Government of China had been engaged in a search for the reincarnated child. Just as the selection process had entered its final stage, the Dalai Lama intervened by arbitrarily announcing his own choice. The Government stated that this was done for political purposes.”

At the thirty-ninth session of the Human Rights Council in September 2018, the WGEID reiterated “its concern in relation to individuals who were detained in China, and placed under investigation, yet whose exact whereabouts remain unknown…that these conditions of detention are a form of enforced disappearance, and urges the Government of China to disclose the fate and whereabouts of all detained persons, regardless of the nature of the charges against them…that accurate information on the detention of persons deprived of liberty and their place or places of detentions, including transfers, should be made available promptly to their family members, their counsel or to any other persons having a legitimate interest in the information.”[52]

Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief

The Special Rapporteur on freedom of Religion or Belief (formerly known as the Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance) reported to the Commission on Human Rights in 1995 that in the case of China, “the first urgent appeal concerned Father Chadrel Rimpoché, head of the committee to seek to identify the successor to the Panchen Lama, and his assistant, who were allegedly arrested in Chengdu on 17 May 1995. The monks of Tashilhumpo Monastery are also reportedly compelled to under re-education sessions on the issue of choosing the successor to the Panchen Lama.”[53] The late Mr. Abdelfattah Amor (a jurist from Tunisia) as the Special Rapporteur became the first UN human rights expert ever to conduct an official mission to the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) when the mandate was invited by China from 19 to 30 November 1994.[54] The report of the Special Rapporteur said that while in Lhasa on 25 and 26 November, he was able  “to have meeting with Mr. Yulo Dawa Tsering, a Tibetan monk, who was imprisoned on 15 November 1987 and released on 6 November 1994… visited the Potala Palace, the Jokhang Temple and the Drepung Monastery. For technical reasons he was unable to visit Sera and Ganden Monasteries.[55]

Among others, the Special Rapporteur stated that “deep religiousness may be the source not only of great spirituality, but all of real difficulties. The latter should be dealt with through dialogue, tolerance and education. Any repression of religion can lead to great religiousness, or even, is some cases, a form of extremism, despite the apparently non-violent nature of Buddhism in general and Tibetan Buddhism in particular, the values of which might be severely tried by changes to the demographic data of Tibet.”[56]

According to the Special Rapporteur’s report to the Commission in 1997, China responded to the urgent appeal of 14 November 1995 and “considered illegal the proclamation by the Dalai Lama of a child as reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, attributed the resignation of Chadrel Rimpoché from the committee looking for the successor of the Panchen Lama to health reasons, and underlined the Chinese authorities’ respect for the identification of the child reincarnation of the Panchen Lama”.[57]

In 1999, the Special Rapporteur received another reply from China which stated that “the Dalai Lama used religion (an example being the designation of the Panchen Lama) to pursue separatist activities, of which the great bulk of monks and nuns and religious believers in Tibet disapproved.”[58]China’s reply denied the allegation that the child designated as Panchen Lama by the Dalai Lama was being detained but explained that “the security measures for the boy and his parents had been adopted at their request following an abduction attempt by exiled Tibetan separatists.”

The reply also informed that Chadrel Rinpoche, Champa (Jampa) Chung and Samdup had been sentenced to prison terms for “imperilling the unity of the State and ethnic cohesiveness and damaging stability and development in Tibet”; and that since Chadrel and Champa had “infringed the State Secret Law”, the trial was held in camera.[59]

In 2005, when the late Ms. Asma Jahangir from Pakistan became the Special Rapporteur, an intervention was initiated on 9 June “to underline the tenth anniversary of the disappearance of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima”.[60]

The following year, the Special Rapporteur reminded the Commission on Human Rights that “Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, then aged 6, disappeared together with his parents from Lhari, their home village on 17 May 1995, three days after having been recognized as the eleventh Panchen Lama by the Dalai Lama. Their whereabouts were not known.”The Special Rapporteur expressed “her concern about the grave interference with the freedom of belief of the Tibetan Buddhists who have the right to determine their clergy in accordance with their own rites and who have been deprived of their religious leader.”[61]

A response from China dated 7 September 2005 informed the Special Rapporteur that “Gedhun Choekyi Nyima is not the Panchen Lama but merely an ordinary Tibetan child. At the current time, Nyima is in good health and, just like other children, is leading a normal, happy life and receiving a good cultural education. According to our understanding, he is already at secondary school and his school results are good. He and his family are not willing to let this interfere with their normal routine.”[62]

The Chinese government response added: “The notion of the reincarnation of the living Buddha is a special tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, and over the last few hundred years a fairly comprehensive method and procedure have been developed for the reincarnation of the living Buddha: where the issue of reincarnation of the major living Buddha is concerned the central Government fully respects the traditional Tibetan Buddhist ritual. In accordance with religious ritual and historical precept, following the drawing of the lots from a golden urn, due endorsement by the Chinese central Government, the fully satisfactory performance of the enthronement ritual and the so-called ‘sitting-on-the-bed’ ceremony, the eleventh Panchen Lama has been reverentially accepted by the wide community of Tibetan Buddhist lamas and by the Buddhist congregation.”[63]

The Special Rapporteur observed that the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) had recommended that China take all necessary measures to ensure the full implementation of the Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law and:

a) Enact legislation explicitly guaranteeing freedom of religion for those under 18 that is not tied to a limited number of recognized faiths, which respects the rights and duties of parents to give guidance to their children in the exercise of their rights in this regard in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of the child;

b) Repeal any ban instituted by local authorities on children of any age from participating in Tibetan religious festivals or receiving religious education

c) Repeal any ban instituted by local authorities on children of any age from attending mosques or receiving religious education throughout the mainland;

d) Take all necessary measures to ensure that children may choose whether to participate in classes on religion or atheism;

e) Allow an independent expert to visit and confirm the well-being of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima while respecting his right to privacy, and that of his parents.

Presenting its report to the seventh session of the Human Rights Council on 9 May 2007, the Special Rapporteur “brought to the attention of the Government information she had receiving according to which Mr. Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, then aged 6, disappeared together with his parents from Lhari, their home village in Tibet on 17 May 1995, three days after having been recognized as the eleventh Panchen Lama by the Dalai Lama. According to the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism, the Panchen Lama is the second highest-ranking religious figure after the Dalai Lama. Mr. Gedhun Choekyi Nyima was reported to remain in isolation and concerns were expressed about his whereabouts, well-being and fate. It was further alleged that the Chinese Government interfered in the identification and training of significant reincarnations in order to control the political loyalties of these important figures in Tibetan society, weaken the influence of the traditional religious authorities and use of reincarnates’ influence among Tibetans.”[64]

Reflecting on China’s 7 September 2005 letter, the Special Rapporteur stated that since “Mr. Gedhun Choekyi Nyima has most recently turned 18, there have been calls that he should have the right to speak on his own behalf, the Special Rapporteur requested further information on measures envisaged by the Government to ensure that the Tibetan Buddhists may exercise the freedom to train, appoint, elect or designate by succession their religious leaders.”[65]

In this continuing dialogue between the Special Rapporteur and the Chinese Government, China in a letter dated 17 July 2007 claimed that: “In accordance with the historical percepts and religious rites of Tibetan Buddhist tradition, the Dalai emphatically does not have the authority to appoint the Panchen reincarnated soul boy. The Dalai’s action in confirming Mr. Gedhun Choekyi Nyima as the eleventh Panchen Lama showed utter contempt for the historical precepts and religious rites of Tibetan Buddhist tradition and were completely illegitimate and invalid.”[66]

The Chinese government further informed the Special Rapporteur that Mr. Gedhun Choekyi Nyima “is a perfectly ordinary Tibetan boy, in an excellent state of health, leading a normal, happy life and receiving a good education and cultural upbringing. He is currently in upper secondary school; he measures 1m 65cm in height and is easy-going by nature. He studies hard and his school results are very good. He likes Chinese traditional culture and has recently taken up calligraphy. His parents are both State employees, and his brothers and sisters are either already working or at university. The allegation that he disappeared together with his parents and that his whereabouts remain unknown is simply not true.”

On 14 August 2007, the Special Rapporteur along with the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression wrote to the Chinese authorities about the detention of Mr. Runggye Adak. In that communication the experts stated that Runggye Adak took the stage during the annual horse racing festival in Lithang, Kardze autonomous prefecture in Sichuan province and allegedly made a statement defending the Dalai Lama’s return and the release of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima who has been recognized as the eleventh Panchen Lama by the Dalai Lama.[67]

The Chinese authorities responds to this communication by stating that “there was no statement by Runggye Adak, as alleged, demanding steps by the Chinese Government to guarantee the safety of the Dalai Lama’s return to China and the release of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, appointed by the Dalai Lama as the eleventh Panchen Lama.

Moreover in a letter addressed to the Chinese Government on 11 October 2007, the Special Rapporteur raised some ‘follow-up questions’ on Order No. 5 of “Management measures for the reincarnation of living Buddhas in Tibetan Buddhism”, China’s new law on controlling Tibetan Buddhist reincarnation system:

Is it correct that State Religious Affairs Bureau Order No. 5 establishes or expands Government procedural control of the principal stages of identifying and educating reincarnated Tibetan Buddhist teachers and that such control would allegedly include:

a) Determining whether not a reincarnated teacher who passes away may be reincarnated again; and whether a monastery is entitled to have a reincarnated teacher in residences;

b) Conducting a search for a reincarnation;

c) Recognising a reincarnation and obtaining government approval of the recognition;

d) Installing a reincarnation in a monastery and issuing of approval documents;

e) Providing education and religious training for a reincarnation.

In a special report on the 25th anniversary of the mandate called ‘Rapporteur’s Digest on Freedom of Religion or Belief-Excerpts of the Reports from 1986-2011 by the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Arranged by Topics of the Framework for Communications’, the Panchen Lama’s case has been highlighted under the heading, ‘Appointing clergy.’[68] The Special Rapporteur recalled UN General Assembly Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief (36/51 of 1981): “The right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief includes the freedom to train, appoint, elect or designate by succession appropriate leaders.”

Committee Against Torture

In 2015, the UN Committee against Torture (CAT) urged China “to ensure that all custodial deaths, disappearances, allegations of torture and ill treatment and reported use of excessive force against persons in the autonomous region of Tibet and neighbouring Tibetan prefectures and counties…are promptly, impartially, and effectively investigated by an independent mechanism.[69]

The Concluding Observations of this periodic review of China states that the CAT “received numerous reports from credible sources that document in detail case of torture, deaths in custody, arbitrary detention and disappearances of Tibetans…the Committee remains seriously concerned at the State party’s failure to provide information on 24 out of the 26 Tibetan cases mentioned in the ‘list of issues’[70].

In November 2008 after reviewing China’s Fourth Periodic Report, the CAT expressed concern over a “large number of persons who have been arrested, but whose current whereabouts remain unknown and which the State party has been unable to clarify despite written and oral requests from the Committee.”[71] In the summary records of this meeting, Mr. Claudio Grossman, the expert from Chile and the chairperson, conveyed his surprise that China should consider that the question of disappearances lay outside the purview of the Convention.  “Article 1 of the Convention referred to any act by which severe pain or suffering was inflicted, and it was difficult to see how forced disappearances escaped that definition. Disappearance occasioned by persons acting in the exercise of their official duties could cause intense suffering; the victim has the impression that he or she did not exist, an felt that those who had made him/her disappear could dispose of him/her as they wished. It was desirable the delegation should say something on this subject, the more so as; according to some reports, the State party was itself involved in forced disappearances whereas it ought to be punishing the persons participating in such acts.”[72]

In the dialogue with the Chinese delegation on 10 November 2008, Ms. Gaer, the expert from the United States, stated that China “had not provided the information requested concerning a number of well known persons, such as Chen Guangcheng, Ablikim Abdureyim, the Panchen Lama Gendun Choekyi Nyima and Bishop Su Zhimin.”[73]

In its Concluding Observations of 12 December 2008, the CAT recommended that China “adopt all necessary measures to prohibit and prevent enforced disappearances, to shed light on the fate of missing persons, including Gendun Choekyi Nyima, and prosecute and punish perpetrators, as this practice constitutes, per se, a violation of the Convention.”[74]China was also told to “conduct investigations or inquiries into the deaths, including deaths in custody, of persons killed in the Math 2008 events in the Tibetan Autonomous Region and neighboring Tibetan prefectures and counties.”

In 2015, the Committee regretted that its “recommendations identified for follow-up in the previous concluding observations have not yet been implemented” by China.  Those recommendations concerned: legal safeguards to prevent torture; the State Secrets Law and reported harassment of lawyers, human rights defenders and petitioners; the lack of statistical information; and accountability for the events in the autonomous region of Tibet and neighbouring Tibetan prefectures and counties.[75]

The CAT is scheduled to receive the next report by 9 December 2019 if China fulfills its obligation on submission deadlines.

High Commissioner for Human Rights

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights established by the UN General Assembly in 1993, had taken up the case of the Panchen Lama, including through various interventions by Mrs. Mary Robinson who held the post from 1997-2002. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is the leading UN entity on human rights.  The General Assembly entrusted both the High Commissioner and her office with a unique mandate to promote and protect all human rights for all people.[76]

In September 1998, Mrs. Robinson made an official visit to China which included a two-day visit to the Tibetan capital Lhasa, the first visit by the UN’s highest human rights official. During the visit, Mrs. Robinson asked Chinese officials about the whereabouts of the then nine-year-old Gedhun Choekyi Nyima. She received no answer. “It’s not ever a case of getting instant answers. I regard this as a start of a continuing process,” she later remarked.[77]

Mrs. Robinson is understood to have raised the case during most of her official visits to China or in bilateral meetings with the Permanent Mission of China to the UN in Geneva. In August 1999, Mrs. Robinson even went ahead to have a meeting with His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Geneva despite the strong objections from the People’s Republic of China. During her visit to Tibet, Mrs. Robinson had called for a meeting between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Chinese President Jiang Zemin before the millennium to resolve the issue of Tibet.

In 2002, during her last official visit to China, the High Commissioner raised the case of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima and also requested access to the child’s parents. Officials told Mrs. Robinson that the boy is healthy and that his parents wanted him to have privacy. “I urged that perhaps his parents could come forward and at least that there would be some of verifying the situation which continues to be a very real concern,” Mrs. Robinson was quoted by the AFP. She added that the UN Office had received thousands of communications seeking investigation into the whereabouts of the boy.[78]

In September 2005 during an official visit to China, the High Commissioner Ms. Louise Arbour from Canada reportedly presented to the Chinese officials a list of 10 political prisoners of concern, including the Panchen Lama. The High Commissioner would not comment further saying they would rather give time to China to act.

On 15 May 2006, four organisations appealed to the UN Secretary-General’s office days before the high commissioner’s visit to China “to do everything possible during your visit to China to urge the Chinese leadership to allow international access to Gedhun Choekyi Nyima.”

On 14 March 2012, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon reacted to a hunger strike by three Tibetans outside UN headquarters in New York, according to his spokesperson Martin Nesirky who said, “the secretary general affirms the right of all people to peaceful protest. He is however very concerned about the health of the hunger striking protesters.”[79] One of the demands of the hunger strikers was that the UN urge China “to release the Panchen Lama”. On 12 March, the UN Assistant Secretary General Ivan Simonovic met with the three protesters who told him they want “concrete action” by the Chinese authorities to ease the ongoing crackdown in their homeland before they will consider ending their hunger strike.  Mr. Simonovic reportedly said he would convey the group’s concerns “to the relevant Special Procedure and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva in line with established procedure in line with handling human rights matters.”

In 2004, the Acting UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Bertrand Ramcharan wrote to the Tibetan Youth Congress Hunger Strike in New York saying that he will exercise “my good office in encouraging the relevant United Nations human rights mechanisms “ to follow up on our concerns.  In that 13 April letter, he outlined the action taken by his Commission on the matters of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, the Panchen Lama and of Tibetan prisoners in general.[80]

In all these efforts seeking the interventions from the UN human rights mechanisms, NGOs raised the case of the Panchen Lama repeatedly at the UN Commission on Human Rights, the UN Human Rights Council and the UN Sub-Commission on Human Rights.

This writer delivered an oral statement on behalf of United Towns Agency for North South Cooperation raising the case of the Panchen Lama at an annual session of the Sub Commission on Human Rights, which prompted China’s first official response to a UN forum. The NGO statement was delivered in the morning meeting and the Chinese delegation returned to the afternoon meeting to make its statement arranging for the copies swiftly distributed to the participants through the conference secretariat services.

At its 62nd session, the Commission on Human Rights provided amongst its documents a written statement submitted by Interfaith International, a non-governmental organisation in special consultative status, dated 13 February 2006, which highlighted the case of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima. The statement said: “In the case of the Panchen Lama, China has faced international opprobrium and the rejection of their chosen reincarnate by the Tibetan people. On an individual level, China’s abduction of the Panchen Lama and denial of his religious identity violates basic principles enshrined in the general human rights instruments … By abducting the Panchen Lama and his family, and denying him his rightful role in Tibetan society, the Chinese government has supplanted the legitimate role of the family and community in his upbringing. The broad definition of family in the Convention on the Rights on the Child (CRC) reflects the wide variety of kinship and community arrangements within which children are brought up around the world.  Article 5 of CRC specifically acknowledges the extended family, referring not only to parents and others legally responsible for the child’s upbringing, but also refers to the extended family or community where they are recognized by local custom. The Panchen Lama traditionally receives years of intensive religious education from senior Tibetan lamas, including the Dalai Lama, in order to practice his traditional religious duties and functions. He cannot receive this education in incommunicado detention.”[81]

On 11 March 2008, nine NGOs in reaction to the report of the WGEID to the Seventh-session of the Human Rights Council questioned “why the Working Group did not seek an official explanation on the case from the Government of the People’s Republic of China, especially when one consider that the last response is now 10 years old. We raise this question in line with the Working Group’s method of work to deal with outstanding cases and the need to send annual reminders to the concerned government.”

This joint statement while appreciating the Working Group’s citing of the case of the Panchen Lama in its report to the Council said that the NGOs “remain disappointed with the lack of cooperation from the Government of the People’s Republic of China. The Working Group concludes in its report that cooperation from governments is indispensable to discovering the fate or whereabouts of disappeared person around the world.”

In other forms of actions, from 5-26 April 1999, three members of the Tibetan Youth  Congress (TYC) staged a hunger-strike in Geneva before the UN Commission on Human Rights annual meeting urging among others that the Chinese authorities “to receive a delegation of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child to visit Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the 11th Panchen Lama of Tibet.”

TYC discontinued another hunger-strike before the UN Headquarters in New York on 22 March 2012, after the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights promised to look into their concerns about rights and freedom in Tibet. Two senior UN officials came to the park across the world body to meet with hunger strikers, bringing them a letter from the U.N.’s top human rights official. The letter’s content satisfied the activists’ demands enough that they were willing to “indefinitely suspend their hunger strike.”[82]

On 5 April 2006, Human Rights Watch wrote to the U.S. President George W. Bush that during his November visit to China urge the Chinese President, as an immediate step to, “allow access by members of the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child to the Panchen Lama designated by the Dalai Lama.”[83]

TYC also staged another hunger strike at the Indian capital Delhi in June 2007 under a “People’s Movement” campaign with one of the demands stating that: “Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the 11th Panchen Lama, has been missing since 1995. The Chinese authorities have repeatedly stated that he is alive. We demand concrete evidence that he is indeed alive.”

On 24 April 1998, Mrs. Mary Robinson, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, in a letter urging Tibetan Hunger Strikers in New Delhi to stop their campaign said: “In September of this year I will be making an official visit of 6 days to China. From the onset it has been my intention that this visit would include Tibet, and I conveyed that wish to the Chinese authorities…I have followed closely the situation of human rights in China; in the broad sense of entitlements of people to economic, social and cultural rights, as well as the situation of civil and political rights. The purpose of visiting Tibet in the context of my visit to China is to see the situation first hand and have opportunities to talk directly to a range of people in the region…the exclusive focus of my visit to China, in common with all my visits, is the situation of human rights. I would not seek to address political issues including matter of sovereignty. It is not part of my mandate…I would hope that my expressed wish to visit Tibet in the context of my visit to China will provide some reassurance to the six people on hunger strike in New Delhi that the United Nations is concerned about their issues and that the situation of the people in Tibet is not being ignored…I reiterate the earnest appeal already made by the Secretary General and myself to the hunger strikers to end their action and to preserve their lives. They have succeeded drawing international attention to their issues and have my assurances that I am focused on the situation of human rights of the people in Tibet and will pursue that focus during my visit to China in September.”

Foreign governments

Governments also seized the UN platform to highlight the case of the Panchen Lama. In 1997, when a split emerged within the European Union, Denmark took the lead on tabling a draft resolution on China at the Council, which expressed concern “at increased restrictions on the exercise of cultural, religious and other freedoms of Tibetans, including the case of the 11th Panchen Lama, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima.”[84] This specific reference to the Panchen Lama in the text of the draft resolution was a unique collective recognition at a United Nations Governmental-body by a group of countries that Gedhun Choekyi Nyima is the Eleventh Panchen Lama of Tibet.

Another instance was when the European Union statement to the Commission on Human Rights in 1996 said: “The Union expresses its concern at the well-being of the child recognized by the Dalai Lama as the Eleventh Panchen Lama of Tibet.”This statement was even co-sponsored by non-EU members: Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Cyprus and Malta. In other words, this represented a collective official position taken by 26 countries on the case of the Panchen Lama.

On 1 December 1995, the Representative of Ireland in a statement to the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly said: “The situation of religious believers in China also gives cause for concern. In particular, there are clear attempts to undermine the ethnic, cultural and religious identity of Tibet, including through interference in the selection of the Panchen Lama.”

A week earlier, Spain speaking on behalf of the European Union also stated: “We have been particularly concerned about the human rights situation in Tibet and the threat to the cultural, religious and ethnic identity of Tibetans. We call on the Chinese authorities to respect the freedom of religion of Tibetans, including in regard to the selection of the Panchen Lama.”

On 24 September 1996, the Irish Presidency of the European Union spoke about EU’s Memorandum to the 51st session of the UN General Assembly wherein the EU expressed its concern “about the human rights situation in China, including Tibet, and in particular the treatment of political dissidents and the fate of the Panchen Lama.”

In October 2000, during a round of the UK-China bilateral human rights dialogue in London, British officials raised the issue of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima. In a written report to the British Parliament, Foreign Office Minister John Battle stated that: “We pressed the Chinese to allow access to the boy by an independent figure acceptable to the Chinese government and Tibetans to verify his health and living conditions. The Chinese stated that the boy was well and attending school. They said that his parents did not want international figures and the media intruding into his life. Two photographs claimed to be of the Panchen Lama were shown to us but not handed over.” The two photos showed a boy writing in Chinese on a blackboard, and another of a boy playing table tennis. There was no means to positively identify the child, the photos merely showed a boy of approximately the correct age. There was also no means to determine his location.

In August 2001, a Polish Parliamentary delegation on visit to Lhasa was told in response to repeated questions that Gedhun Choekyi Nyima and his family were being held in “protective custody” and were healthy; the delegation was promised photos of the boy within six weeks but never received them. Later the Polish government received a letter from the Chinese embassy in Warsaw stating that Gedhun Choekyi Nyima and his parents did not want their peaceful life to be disturbed by strangers, and that the Chinese government “respects freedom of choice for its citizens and hopes that the Polish people would understand that too.”

In October 2001, an Australian delegation was told that the parents of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima were insisting that no foreign delegations be allowed to meet him. According to Chinese authorities, the parents have said that “they want their privacy respected, that they particularly don’t want people to have access to the child and they want him to live a normal life and they don’t want to be bothered by people.”

In March 2002, a Chinese government delegation from the TAR met with a European Parliament delegation and once again said that Gedhun Choekyi Nyima did not wish to be disturbed. The delegation refused to answer questions about photographs promised to the Polish delegation.

Continuing efforts by governments to end the enforced disappearance of Panchen Lama were seen as recently as in November 2018 when the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) mechanism of the UN Human Rights Council, the United States of America urged China “to cease interference in the selection and education of religious leaders, such as Tibetan Buddhist lamas”.[85]

In 2007, to mark the International Day of the Disappeared, human rights activists and defenders from Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Nepal, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Thailand gathered for the Human Rights School Session of the Asian Human Rights Commission for 2007.  Together they issued a statement stating that “international action to stop forced disappearances in Asian region has not been adequate and that such action can even be sharpened with regard to forced disappearances in the Asian region. There is a moral legitimacy to expect that the United Nations human rights agencies will play a more active role is preventing disappearances and to prosecute the perpetrators in the region.”[86]

Conclusion and Recommendation

It is important for Tibetans and their supporters worldwide to understand the overall trajectory of the Panchen Lama’s case at various UN mechanisms especially how the human rights mechanisms have worked to resolve the case of the enforced disappearance of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the Eleventh Panchen Lama of Tibet.

In this ‘search’ for the Panchen Lama by the UN human rights mechanisms, the central question has not been answered. We can, nevertheless, conclude that China had been compelled to provide information on the status of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima from which assumptions can be made. Yet, without the world actually seeing the Panchen Lama alive, China’s claims can only be considered contradictory, suspicious and incomplete.

China is not really ‘seeking the truth from Facts’. One of China’s most outrageous claims communicated to the United Nations was: “A few unscrupulous souls have tried to smuggle the boy abroad. They even plotted to do him physical harm and then shift the blame to the Government of China. Fearing for his safety, the boy’s parents appealed to the Government for protection. The Government has responded to their request by taking security measures to protect the boy, his parents and other family members.”

At this stage, the case of the Panchen Lama remains an outstanding one to be resolved for the United Nations human rights mechanisms who have made numerous interventions to stop China’s continuous crime of enforced disappearance.

As to the importance of follow-up to these interventions, Tibetans must first fully educate themselves about the work of the UN human rights mechanisms: the mandates, the methods of work, the discourse, the terms of references and the guidelines.

On a case as complex as that of the Panchen Lama, it is vital, crucial and practical that only one global campaign is initiated when seeking the interventions from the UN. Such a strategy must fully adhere to and support the existing recommendations from the Committee on the Rights of the Child, the Committee against Torture, the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances and the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief.

Aware of the unique independent mandate, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, should be urged to continue the interventions initiated by Mrs. Mary Robinson to determine the whereabouts, the well-being and the fate of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima.

New avenues and strategies must be pursued on how other mandates of the UN human rights system can be approached to seek new interventions on the case of the Panchen Lama, including with Treaty Bodies like the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Culture Rights (CESCR). China’s Third Periodic Report to CESCR should be submitted by 30 May 2019.

Tibetans should work towards development of networks with national, regional and global networks who campaign in solidarity against enforced disappearances to strengthen the Convention on Enforced Disappearance. Tibetans must, of course, show gratitude to the United Nations human rights experts and officials who have worked all these years despite the stubborn and uncooperative behavior of the Chinese authorities when responding about the full status of the Panchen Lama.

The Tibetan media particularly radio services need to give more space for programs aimed at educating the Tibetan people about the work of the UN human rights mechanisms, including through the launch of human rights education programs developed with NGOs like the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy; the Ghu Chu Sum; and, the Tibetan Women’s Association.

Finally, a global Panchen Lama campaign at the United Nations can only be spearheaded by the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) as the legitimate representative of the six million Tibetan people while working in close consultation and co-ordination with Tashi Lhunpo Monastery.

In April 2018, His Holiness the Dalai Lama said that the Panchen Lama “which I recognized sometime back, there was no news, but then according to reliable information, he still alive and receiving normal education. So we will see.” 

Ngawang Choephel Drakmargyapon coordinated “The Tibetan United Nations Initiative” of the Central Tibetan Administration (aka Tibetan Government in Exile) as the Human Rights Officer at Tibet Bureau in Geneva from 1995 until 2003.  In 1989, he was appointed as the first Human Rights Officer of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) in Dharamsala, India. This responsibility introduced him to the work of the UN human rights mechanisms, which he follows to this day. He has conducted human rights training workshops on the UN human rights mechanisms in India, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Tanzania, Burkina Faso, the Philippines and Thailand.  He currently works as a human rights consultant in Geneva, Switzerland and has followed the case of the Panchen Lama at the UN since 1995.

Recommended reading by the author: ‘Goodbye Commission, Welcome: Tibet’s Quest for China Scrutiny at the United Nations’ 






[5]As of 1 August 2017, there are 44 thematic and 12 country mandates.


















[23] Summary records – CRC/C/SR.299, page 4, para.8

[24] CRC/C/SR.299, pages 6 and 7, paras. 25 and 26

[25] CRC/C/SR.300, page 4, para. 13

[26] CRC/C/15/Add.56, page 4, para. 20

[27] CRC/C/15/Add.56, page. 7, paras. 40 and 41



[30] CRC/C/SR.1064, page 3, para. 7

[31] CRC/C/SR.1064, page. 4, para. 11

[32] CRC/C/SR. 1064, page. 5, para. 14

[33] CRC/C/CHN/2, dated 24 November 2005, page. 14, paras. 45 and 45

[34] CRC/C/SR.1834, pages.5 and 6, paras. 28-31

[35] CRC/C/CHN/CO/3-4, page. 9, para. 41

[36] para. 41(e)

[37] para 42 (d)

[38] E/CN.4/1997/34, page 3, para. 103

[39] E/CN.4/1997/34, page. 24, para. 107

[40] E/CN.4/1997/34, page 24, para. 108

[41] E/CN.4/1999/62. Page 17, para. 81

[42] E/CN.4/2002/79, pages. 22 and 23, paras. 85 and 90

[43] E/CN.4/2006/56, page. 40, para. 152)


[45] A/HRC/7/2, page. 24, para. 79


[47]A/HRC/19/Rev.1, pages. 37-38. para. 105

[48] A/HRC/19/Rev.1, page. 41, para. 117


[50] A/HRC/36/39, page.16, para.73

[51] E/CN.4/1996/38, page. 132, paras. 134-135

[52] A/HRC/39/46. Page. 18, para. 87

[53] E/CN.4/1996/95, page. 8, para. 40

[54] Mission Report: E/CN.4/1995/1991

[55] E/CN.4/1995/1991, page. 112

[56] E/CN.4/1995/1991, page. 134

[57] E/CN.4/1997/91, page.11, para. 43/e

[58] E/CN.4/1999/58, page. 16, para.48

[59] E/CN.4/1999/58, page. 16, para. 48

[60] E/CN.4/2006/5/Add.1, page. 24, paras. 93-98

[61] para. 95

[62] E/CN.4/2006/5/Add.1, page. 24, para. 96

[63] para. 98

[64] A/HRC/7/10/Add.1, page.16, para.55

[65] page. 17, para. 56

[66] page. 18, para. 60

[67] A/HRC/7/10/Add.1, page. 20, para. 69


[69] CAT/C/CHN/CO/5, page. 11, para. 41, 3 February 2016

[70] CAT/C/CHN/Q/5/Add.1, para. 27

[71] List of issues, question 2(1), CAT/C/CHN/Q/4, page. 9, para. 23(f)

[72] CAT/C/SR/844, page.16, para. 63, 7 November 2008

[73] CAT/C/846, page. 13, para. 37

[74] CAT/C/CHN/CO/4, page. 10

[75] CAT/C/CHN/CO/4, paras. 11, 15, 17, and 23, respectively. CAT/C/CHN/CO/5, page. 2, para. 6



[78] E/CN4/Sub.2/2003/NGO/5, para. 4, dated 10 July 2003.


[80] Tibetan Youth Congress Calls Off Hunger Strike







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